Collection, Context, and Material Culture: Tangibility and the British Broadside

After Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the fifteenth century, literacy among
Europe’s working classes began to rise. To capitalize on the growing working-class
market, astute printers produced affordable, single-sided broadsheets that combined
poetry, music, and visual art to entertain and inform readers. By the seventeenth century,
the broadside had become immensely popular in Britain across a broad social spectrum,
and it remained a staple of British popular culture—in various guises—until the end of
the nineteenth century.

Historically, scholars have considered the broadside to be a popular dialect of Britain’s
literary tradition. Consequently, there is an excellent body of work on the literary nature
of the broadside, but this scholarship overlooks the wondrous complexity of the genre by
focusing on content to the exclusion of form. While the literary aspects of the British
broadside have enormous cultural and historical significance, they cannot be understood
in abstract isolation. Broadsides were songs as well as poems, and—more importantly—
they were tangible items that were bought, sold, trimmed, pasted on walls, and preserved
in private libraries and collections.

In this lecture, I will consider the Ashmolean’s broadside collection as a part of Britain’s
material culture, examining the physical qualities and characteristics of the prints, and
discussing how their tangibility forces us to reevaluate current definitions of the tradition
as simply literary. I will pay particular attention to the preservation history of this
collection, and consider how the location of these broadsides in a museum—rather than a
library—alters how we understand and approach them as historical items.